Sunday, December 7, 2014

Northeast Ohio Eats

Since we skipped our annual extended family July beach house rental this year (we went to South Dakota for frybread tacos instead), I arranged for us to spend Thanksgiving week with said extended family, who lives in northeast Ohio when they're not frolicking on the Carolina shore. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were gracious enough to prepare us enough holiday food to supply Napoleon's army; however, as you're aware, no trip is complete in my world without sampling the local grub. So, using a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland as a pretext, we made the hour-long drive to Cleveland to see if there was anything good to eat.

For those of you who still envision Cleveland as "the mistake by the lake", I'm here to say that the city's outlook has brightened considerably since its darkest days in the 70s and 80s, with its moribund heavy industrial base now replaced by rising stars in the tech, medical, and finance sectors. One thing that hasn't changed over the years, though, is Sokolowski's University Inn, a Cleveland institution serving up hearty Eastern European fare since 1923 (according to the proprietors, they're the city's oldest family owned/operated restaurant).

The view from the tavern's parking lot overlooking the Cuyahoga River towards downtown Cleveland is about the most striking urban panorama you're ever likely to take in.

Back in the day, Sokolowski's clientele most likely consisted of blue-collar workers from the nearby mills seeking a cheap, hearty meal (not to mention a shot and a beer); nowadays, it's largely tourists and families that drop in for eats.  Once inside, the queue to enter the cafeteria line begins near the bar.  When we first arrived at 11:30 am, the place was nearly empty; however, hungry patrons were stacked up outside the door only 30 minutes later.

My first impression of the dishes on offer was that any place putting desserts at the front of the cafeteria line can't be all bad.  I snagged what appeared to be some sort of cake in a bowl, along with a creamy cucumber salad before heading towards the entrees.  I'd read that the chicken paprikash was a standout here (it was one of the things Anthony Bourdain tried when he visited Sokolowski's for his Cleveland episode of "No Reservations") and it absolutely was, probably the best I'd ever had.  Instead of bone-in chicken, the rich and slightly spicy orange-pink sauce (clearly, the cream and butter were not spared) smothered a moist, boneless cutlet.  Although I enjoyed the sauerkraut I chose for my side (the canned green beans, not so much), I immediately regretted my decision not to get egg noodles instead, all the better to mop up every bit of that decadent sauce.

Mrs. Hackknife opted for the house pierogi, which were filled with a potato/cheese mixture and browned in butter before being plated with a little gravy (again, low-cal diners beware).  Having lived for a few years in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, we know what good pierogi taste like and these were definitely them.

The "cake-in-a-bowl" dessert turned out to be a tasty (and somewhat toothsome) form of rice pudding.  Whether it was simply a creation of the kitchen or a version of rizskoch (Hungarian rice cake), I'm not entirely sure.

The progeny were perfectly content to eat a few pieces of kielbasa, some egg noodles, and chopped-up fruit along with their favorite sodas, Sprecher root beer (Hackknifette) and grape (Hackknife Jr.) while the magnanimous visage of Pope John Paul II gazed down upon the dining room from several places on the wall.

Our visit to Sokolowski's was so successful (it's rare that I drag the family to a place that ultimately satisfies everyone) that Mrs. Hackknife suggested we make this a regular stop on our future Thanksgiving trips to Ohio (we'll see).

After a few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and a harsh reminder of how lousy the winter wind can feel to us Floridians - it's situated right next to Lake Erie), we needed an afternoon treat.  Fortunately, the highly-regarded Lilly Handmade Chocolates was nearby in the now-trendy Tremont neighborhood (formerly home to German, Slavic, and Ukrainian immigrants, the new residents are mostly hipsters and young urban professionals).

The folks at Lilly make a point of suggesting wine and craft beer pairings to go along with their gourmet chocolates.  With so many decadent-sounding choices (hazelnut praline butter, anyone?), we had a difficult time making our selections.

We ended up purchasing a gift box of 12 eye-popping pieces along with a chomp monster bar (a mixture of dark chocolate, black mission figs, and salty almonds).  The monster bar was great both by itself and paired with a nice tawny Port later that evening.  Our consensus favorites of the chocolates were the Jimmie (dark chocolate filled with triple chocolate hot fudge ganache, vanilla bean, and salted caramel) and the Red Planet (dark chocolate with red wine soaked strawberries and freeze dried raspberry powder).

As sumptuous as the sweets were, the kids were dissatisfied with our dessert selection (it's hard to convince a 5-year old of the merits of blackstrap molasses and candied ginger when all she wants is a plain Hershey's Bar).  In order to head off the pending crisis, we wandered down the street and found a tidy coffeehouse called Lucky's Cafe that sold homemade sugar cookies.

Unbeknownst to us, Lucky's had been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives back in 2009 - they also happened to make pie: not just any pie, really, but sweet potato with caramel swirl and toasted meringue on top.  Of course, the adults had to sample it and, of course, we had to buy a whole sweet potato pie to share with family on Thanksgiving Day (because, you know, we only already had 5 pies on the menu for our upcoming feast).

On the day before Thanksgiving, we decided to bring the kids to the World of Wonder Children's Museum in downtown Youngstown (about a 15-minute drive from my aunt and uncle's house).  Like Cleveland, Youngstown is beginning to come out the other end of a long recession period following the loss of most of its steel industry (which had drawn my great-grandparents here early in the 20th Century).  There are new signs of vitality in its historic city center - vintage buildings are being renovated and turned into condos, restaurants, bars, and shops, all riding the wave of tech and agricultural startups that are being drawn to the area.  One of these is Suzie's Dogs and Drafts (32 N. Phelps Street, no website), a casual, family-friendly hot dog joint in an old police station-turned-saloon where we popped in for lunch.

Suzie's prides itself on offering about 50 different hot dog toppings and almost as many well-regarded craft beers, with an emphasis on Midwestern breweries (such as Great Lakes and Founders).  Like the late, lamented Hot Doug's, diners can also choose specific hot dog combos created by the chefs.  I picked one of these combos on the recommendation of my cousin Kristen (a native who's an ambassador for the emerging Youngstown scene); that is, the beef frank topped with Bavarian beer sauerkraut, spiced pecans, a spicy sambal sauce, and crickets.  Yes, you read that correctly - Big Cricket Farms is one of those new agricultural startups that provides sustainably-raised crickets to Suzie's.  I'd decided a little while back that I was finally ready to try eating bugs for the first time (at least willingly, not counting all those parts already hidden in nearly everything coming from the supermarket) and this was the time.  Just in case, I asked our server to put them on the side.

Mrs. Hackknife, Hackknifette, and I all tried one (Hackknife Jr. politely declined) and found them to be not a bit unpleasant (I even, daresay, a little tasty), with a taste and texture similar to a nutty popcorn.  On the hot dog, their flavor mostly got overshadowed by the sambal, which ended up being a little on the spicy side for my liking (I realized too late that it was one of the spiciest toppings on their menu).  Of the whole dish, I actually least liked the hot dog - for an artisanal, locally-made sausage, it was surprisingly bland (I think they'd be better off going with one of the big, nationwide vendors like Vienna Beef).  Much better were the house tater tots and the German potato salad, a tangy and warm side with a refreshing bite of cider vinegar.

Feeling pretty proud of myself (and my daughter - go girl!) for trying crickets, we made one more stop downtown after leaving the museum, again on the advice of my cousin. One Hot Cookie (112 W. Commerce Street) is a small bakery selling decadent cookies just up the street from Suzie's.  While the progeny snacked on candy and kettle corn from a nearby candy shop and watched The Santa Clause on a little tv (the cookies were too fancy for their liking - see Lilly Chocolates above), my wife and I blissed out on a maple bacon sugar cookie (heated up in the microwave just before serving to better digest the bacon grease) and then had to split a death-by-chocolate cookie (also served warm) for seconds.

I always used to joke that I could never live near my Ohio relatives since I'd end up obese from all of their great home cooking; now, it's become clear that the area's established and emerging foodie offerings would cause me just as many issues...

No comments:

Post a Comment